By F. Dale Lolley
PITTSBURGH – The first-team offense looked sharp. The re-worked first-team defense, led by rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, was solid. And the backups did just enough.
It all added up to the first Steelers’ preseason victory since 2012, ending a five-game losing streak, as Pittsburgh defeated Buffalo, 19-16, Saturday night at Heinz Field.
After a brief appearance in their preseason opener last weekend in New York against the Giants, the Steelers’ starters got an extended opportunity to play against the Bills. They made the most of it.
Pittsburgh’s starters looked to be in midseason form, dominating their Buffalo counterparts to take a 13-3 lead when both teams had their regulars on the field.
Making his preseason debut after sitting out last weekend’s opener against the Giants with a bruised knee, Shazier, the Steelers’ top draft pick, made up for lost time.
“I felt great out there,” said Shazier, the 15th selection in this year’s draft. “I just played the techniques the coaches have been teaching us. I was just excited to be back on the field.”
The inside linebacker had nine tackles in the regular defense, two more on special teams and an interception in his first game in a Steelers uniform.
“His pass coverage was awesome,” said fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. “You saw the tackles. He was making tackles left and right. He has the pedigree. He has all the talent in the world to be anything he wants. He has the intangibles to do that. I’m just excited to see him put it all together and be the complete player he is.”
Ben Roethlisberger and the first-team offense held up their end of the bargain as well, as the Steelers’ quarterback threw touchdowns to end each of Pittsburgh’s first two possessions working exclusively out of the no-huddle.
“It’s all about communication with Todd (Haley),” said Roethlisberger, referring to the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. “He’s in my ear telling me different thoughts. That’s how this thing should work.”
Roethlisberger, who saw action on just the opening possession against the Giants, threw a 76-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on a slant, then finished off the Steelers’ second possession following Shazier’s interception with a beautiful 16-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back corner of the end zone.
Placekicker Shaun Suisham missed the PAT from 33 yards after Brown’s touchdown catch. The NFL is experimenting with placing PATs at the 15 when teams attempt a kick. Suisham’s miss was the fourth by a kicker this preseason.
“It was a great read by Ben,” said Brown of his touchdown catch and run. “The defensive back (got) caught up with another guy. Ben hit me in the spot, and I was able to get up to speed and turn the corner.”
Roethlisberger finished with eight completions in 11 attempts for 128 yards and two touchdowns, a passer rating of 150.8.
“It was just a start but there were some good things,” said Roethlisberger. “The second play of the game, I called a check to the play and knew Antonio Brown was running the slant. When he runs the slant and you put it on him, he will always catch them. The second he caught it, I put my hands up because I knew he was going to score.”
The Bills added a field goal early in the second quarter to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 13-6.
Second-year quarterback Landry Jones replaced Roethlisberger with just over five minutes remaining in the first half. Jones’ first pass was intercepted by rookie cornerback Bradley Roby, but the Steelers defense kept them out of the end zone, stopping the Bills on fourth down to preserve the lead.
Midway through the third quarter, Jones was sacked at the Buffalo 27 and defensive tackle Landon Cohen picked up the loose ball returning it 59 yards to the Pittsburgh 16 to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Anthony Dixon that tied the game at 13-13.
That was it for Jones, who is third on the Pittsburgh depth chart. He finished 2 of 5 for 53 yards before giving way to second-stringer Bruce Gradkowski.
Gradkowski, who was 7 of 13 for 47 yards and an interception, scrambled nine yards on third-and-11 from the Buffalo 39 to set up a go-ahead 48-yard field goal by Suisham with 9:31 remaining.
But the Bills tied the game at 16-16 on a 44-yard Dan Carpenter field goal on the first play following the two-minute warning.
Gradkowski pushed the Steelers out to the Pittsburgh 46 with 49 seconds remaining, but a pass intended for rookie Martavis Bryant tipped off the wide receiver’s hands and was intercepted by safety Deon Broomfield at the Buffalo 29.
Following a short completion, Buffalo’s third-string quarterback, Jeff Tuel, was sacked by Terence Garvin, then Vic So’oto, with the second sack forcing a fumble.
Rookie Howard Jones, who recovered two fumbles last week against the Giants, scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Buffalo 1, setting up Suisham for a 20-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
“It’s good to get the win,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “There’s some positives and negatives that are usually associated with preseason football. But there are a lot of things to build upon from this football game.”
Odds and end zones
Washington resident Gene Steratore was the referee for the game. … Reserve offensive lineman Bryant Browning suffered a sprained shoulder. … Linebacker Jarvis Jones was among those who did not dress for the game for the Steelers. Chris Carter replaced Jones, who has a groin injury, started in his place.